Trials & Litigation

Possible Private Court Hearings in R.I. Raise ACLU's Hackles

An almost 25-year-old law in Rhode Island is suddenly controversial, as it looks like it might be implemented for the first time.

The so-called hire-a-judge law enacted by the state in 1984 is the basis of an apparent plan by the Rhode Island Supreme Court to allow litigants in civil cases to retain retired judges to hold private hearings, reports the Providence Journal.

Under Rhode Island’s Retired Justice Trial Act, litigants decide where the case would be heard and pay all costs—including the fee for the retired judge whose decisions, the law states, would “have the same force and effect as if it had been entered or made by an active judge of the court.”

The plan would potentially free up court resources that could be devoted to other cases, and offer those who can afford to pay a judge to hear a case the opportunity to avoid the delay and potential embarrassment inherent in the public judicial system. But it concerns Steven Brown of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, who says such private court hearings violate fundamental principles of transparency that are the basis of the American system of justice.

A spokesperson for the court says the private hearings would be little different than the private arbitration and mediation hearings (often in connection with filed court cases), that have been routine in Rhode Island and other states for decades.

However, Brown contends that the RJTA statute confers special rights to private litigants, such as the ability to appeal directly to the state supreme court, that are not available to participants in private alternative dispute resolution proceedings.

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